By Elwood Dunn, a Colleague
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the impending 170th independence anniversary and political campaigning comes the death in his 61st year of Forkpa H. Kemah, one of a very small number of professionally trained Liberian librarians and archivists. A modest and self-effacing man, Kemah had put to work his training at Cuttington University’s library as he has at our National Archives/the Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA) since obtaining a Master in Library Science degree from the prestigious University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Forkpa passed away in Monrovia on July 7 following a brief illness and also after having buried within a two-month period both his wife and his mother. His children, Musu, Gbolu and Velega, survive him. Funeral was in Monrovia on July 22, and interment at the Johnsonville Cemetery.
Born in Zorzor, Lofa County to Yarkpazuo and Gbolu Kemah, he began his education in his hometown moving on to elementary and junior high school at the Zorzor Central School between 1962 and 1971. The Kakata Rural Teachers Training Institute (KRTTI) followed where he obtained his high school education along with a Grade “C” Teaching Certificate. He then matriculated to Cuttington University College (now Cuttington University) where he was awarded a BSc Degree in Secondary School Mathematics in 1982. Admitted to UCLA shortly thereafter, he studied for the MLS between 1984 and 1986, the year the degree was conferred.
Kemah immediately returned home and to his alma mater, which he began serving as deputy to the college’s librarian until 1990 when civil war circumstances forced the closing of the college. He journeyed to Monrovia and served as librarian at the medical college of the University of Liberia between 1992 and 1999. He returned to Cuttington in 1999 as Director of Library where he remained until June 2009 when he joined CNDRA, serving in various capacities until his death.
The deceased had a dual career path – a teacher and a librarian/archivist. He was a math and English teacher between 1975 and 1979 at the G.W. Gibson Elementary School in Monrovia, and then the Sinyea junior high school in Bong County. In 1983/84 he was a math teacher at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga. He also co-authored a textbook for math teaching at the junior high level, along with an accompanying pupil’s handbook.
His primary career effort was as a librarian and archivist. Before joining the CNDRA in 2009 as earlier pointed out, he served his alma mater as a professional librarian, becoming Director of Library. There, among other activities, he prepared a Library Training Manual for non-professional librarians (2009), as he supervised the design and construction of an automated library database (quick search) for Cuttington’s library (2007). And during a part of the civil war period Kemah served as library consultant to a number of institutions including the Liberian Institute of Public Administration (1998-99), and the Mother Paten College of Health Sciences (1995).
For the National Archives/CNDR, which he came to serve from 2009 until his passing, he brought to bear his skills at collecting, cataloging, preserving, organizing and disseminating documents of primary historical value. Before becoming technical coordinator of the agency in 2014, he served as director of Library at the National Public Library where he was instrumental in establishing a unit dubbed “blind library corner” for the visually impaired at the Ashmun Street facility. Between 2011 and 2014 he generously provided library education to a number of schools in the Monrovia area, and was CNDRA’s representative to the Land Commission land administration policy task force (2011-2014). He also guided the preparation of two functional manuals, the CNDRA Archival Policy Manual and the Staff Training Manual (produced 2010).
In the passing of Forkpa H. Kemah Liberia has lost perhaps the last of its active professionally trained librarians, and certainly one of too few professional archivists. His passing brings to memory another Cuttington alum, the late J.H. Deyior Wilson who served with passion at CNDRA from 1972-1990. Though much is being said about Liberian history and its possibilities for healing our unreconciled nation, we have paid scant attention to the written records generated by some 200 years of black experiment in self-government and 170 years of state independence. We seem content at having others collect and store our national papers while we keep up the appearance of a national archives, providing budget to pay staff but nothing to do the business of collecting, cataloging, preserving, organizing and disseminating our documents of historical value. I was recently part of a memorial in Philadelphia, USA to the late Professor Svend E. Holsoe who bequeathed to Indiana University his personal collection of Liberia that perhaps outstrips our national holdings in Liberia. And yet the little we still have we seem contented at marking time with them rather than professionally developing them.
My hope in highlighting these issues is to use the sad occasion of Forkpa Kemah’s death to attempt to raise national consciousness especially at this historical juncture as a new cadre of Liberians prepares to assume national leadership. May Forkpa’s prodigious efforts and the heretofore benign neglect of our state papers awaken among us all the absolute significance of this area of our national life so that a few years hence we can witness a reversal in the fortunes of the CNDRA, an important arm in the documentation and preservation of our history.
Though you left us all too early Forkpa, you have played well your part. May God Almighty grant you rest eternal!